04.23.10

Matsumoto and Anthrax Conspiracy

Posted in Bioterrorism at 12:15 pm by George Smith

Last month DD posted on conspiracy thinking and the anthrax case here.

That article dealt with the original thinking that the anthrax in the mail had been weaponized in some special manner. And that notion was subsequently carried over into arguments that Bruce Ivins could not have been the culprit because he did not know how to do such a thing.

No amount of FBI explication or proof from a national laboratory that a silicon signal in the spores was not weaponization could dislodge this idea. Even so,
the conspiracy argument using it has been pushed to the fringes.

And that original post pointed to a news article published in Science in March entitled: “Silicon Mystery Endures in Solved Anthrax Case.”

That article did not endeavor to further any discussion of weaponization. It did, however, point out that the question about weaponization was settled — the anthrax powder was not so. It also mulled over the unanswered question of how silicon wound up in the spore coats of the mailed anthrax, something science has yet to answer, if it ever will.

Curiously, the journalist most responsible for the conspiracy thought on anthrax weaponization was Gary Matsumoto.

And it was a news article by him, published by Science in 2003, which became the heart of it.

It was Matsumoto’s news article in Science magazine in 2003 which bundled all the rumors of weaponization in a single authoritative spot.

Entitled “Anthrax Powder: State of the Art?”, it engaged in a speculation on how the mailed anthrax was weaponized.

An excerpt read thusly:

[One group of people] thinks that the powder mailed to the Senate (widely reported to be more refined than the one mailed to the TV networks in New York) was a diabolical advance in biological weapons technology. This diverse group includes scientists who specialize in biodefense for the Pentagon and other federal agencies, private-sector scientists who make small particles for use in pharmaceutical powders, and an electronics researcher [in Texas] …

The FBI science exhibit on the Ivins case in 2008 attempted to refute much of the wild thinking which grew from this, delivering a set of facts Science magazine repeated again in March of this year — conspicuously sans Matsumoto.

“Studying individual spores with a transmission electron microscope, [two scientists] found that the silicon was located within the spore coat, well inside the cell’s exosporium (outermost covering). By contrast, when they looked at surrogate spores weaponized with silica, the silicon was clearly outside the exosporium,” reported the magazine.

From a story I wrote for The Register in 2008 on the FBI Ivins exhibtion:

The posting to the net of a transcript of the FBI’s briefing to the press on the science behind the anthrax case is remarkable for two things: first, for its explanation of the development of microbial forensics and the team of scientists behind it; and second, for the determination of some members of the press to run off on a conspiracy theory hinging upon whether or not the anthrax was ever weaponized.

As to the second part, the FBI and its team of independent scientists unequivocally said it wasn’t, after repeated badgering by one journalist – unnamed in the transcript – who insisted other scientists at Ft. Detrick and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had determined the anthrax to be weaponized because silica was allegedly seen on the surface of the spores.

Dr Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who had, with others, analyzed the anthrax powders in depth, flatly denied this. “They are mistaken,” the man replied to repeated questioning.

The ‘unnamed’ journalist who was still after the FBI about weaponization in 2008 was Gary Matsumoto.

Today, ProPublica published a story by Gary Matsumoto, floating the idea that Bruce Ivins could not have been the anthrax mailer because his supervisor implies he couldn’t have done it.

“A microbiologist who supervised the work of accused anthrax killer Bruce E. Ivins explained to a National Academy of Sciences panel Thursday why the arithmetic of growing anthrax didn’t add up to Ivins’ mailing deadly spores in fall 2001,” wrote Matsumoto for ProPublica here.

” ‘Impossible,” said Dr. Henry S. Heine of a scenario in which Ivins, another civilian microbiologist working for the Army, allegedly prepared the anthrax spores at an Army lab at Fort Detrick. ‘”

To reiterate: In 2008, Ivins could not have been the anthraxer because it was weaponized with silicon, even though the FBI had a materials scientist explaining the matter.

In 2010 that argument was difficult to support.

However, the belief that Ivins was not the anthrax mailer is solidly entrenched in a certain segment, not the least of whom are some Ivins colleagues at Fort Detrick. Fort Detrick is the heart of the bioterror defense effort in the US and the discovery of Ivins in its midst was a heavy blow to the professional reputation and trust that was essential to the institution.

It’s only human nature, then, that Ivins’ supervisor — someone, who if you accept the case, totally missed the doings of the bioterrorist who was his colleague — would naturally resist the idea that his trusted man was the culprit. Ivins’ status as the anthrax mailer pretty much put Heine’s career in a box. More directly, it implied the man couldn’t be trusted with overseeing people working with dangerous pathogens at THE premier world and government facility for working with extremely dangerous pathogens.

Gary Matsumoto’s ProPublica article indicates that such is the case, although it does not label it so.

In ProPublica, one reads:

“Heine left [Fort Detrick] in February and is now senior scientist at the Ordway Research Institute, Inc. Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infections in Albany, N.Y.”

That’s the graceful way of science.

You’re given time to retire after a long career, to arrange a soft landing at some greatly lesser place after your epic fail.

It’s a major setback. The end of a career. And anyone in such a position would have a perfectly understandable reason to argue against the FBI’s case.

So the argument put forward by Gary Matsumoto is that a defrocked scientist believes Ivins could not have produced the mailed anthrax because now Ivins did not have the time to do so.

ProPublica produces some quotes that, in and of themselves, require a bit more explanation than the article furnishes.

“[Ivins] logged 34 more hours in the B3 suite than his combined total for the previous seven months,” reads ProPublica. This figure is taken from the FBI.

“That’s more than 8,000 hours (close to a year) short of what he would have needed to grow the anthrax,” Ivins’ supervisor told ProPublica in interview.

On the other hand, the DoJ/FBI report on the anthrax in the mail has this to say:

“A leading anthrax researcher who assisted the investigation expressed his expert opinion that 100 ml would have been required to create sufficient material to be in one letter, for a total of 500 ml for five letters. Nevertheless, we cannot say with certainty how much material was used in the letters.”

The expert scientist cited by the DoJ/FBI is not named.

Nevertheless, the government’s argument is that the material was sufficient, unremarkable for the estimated volumes used.

The ProPublica claims — however — are confusing, even if you have scientific experience. First, there is a claim that a year of effort would have been required to produce “100 liters” of anthrax. But directly across from this claim is a picture of Ivins’ Erlenmeyer flask anthrax source, with the caption: [It] would’ve taken a flask filled to brimming to come close to producing all the spores mailed in 2001.”

Which appears not to be an unreasonable amount at all, given Ivins’ access to the flask and his considerable experience.

From a practical standpoint, concentrations of microbial fermentations do not necessarily have to take “8,000 hours” of work and a hundred liters. With the respect to the FBI claim that Ivins used 34 hours to do such things, the latter is a reasonable claim. While the former is not easy to resolve using common sense from the point of view of the article without further information.

“When you dry spores, they fly everywhere and you can’t see ’em,” Heine told ProPublica. “Had Bruce made it during all those late nights in the hot suite, we would’ve been his first victims.”

This is also a bit of a disingenuous quote.

The DoJ/FBI report devotes quite a bit of space to anthrax contaminations in Ivins’ laboratory, his clean-up efforts, and — according to the FBI — his cover-ups of them.

In March, DD wrote this at the Register:

Unsurprisingly, with any case as famous, drawn out, terrifying and fraught with initial blind alleys as Amerithrax, there are a large number of people – in separate groups – who will never be able to accept that Ivins was the anthraxer. There are those with a professional interest in exonerating him in argument – colleagues at Ft. Detrick.

Ivins’s anthrax mailings from the heart of the country’s biodefense research establishment impeaches it on many levels, and it is human nature that such a verdict is unacceptable. Ivins throws into question the very need for its work, exploding the trust, reliability and impeccable reputation that such an institution must have.

=====

The FBI’s argument is technical but not unreasonable at all. It is consistent, for example, with this author’s scientific experience with bacterial preparations. Arguments to the contrary rely on equally technical details.

The press, of course, cannot evaluate independently, being only able to deliver arguments from authority – all depending on who it believes to be authority.

Seems reasonable.

6 Comments

  1. Spiny Norman said,

    April 23, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    A superb and sane analysis.

  2. Dinsdale Piranha said,

    April 24, 2010 at 3:17 am

    DD wrote:

    “The ProPublica claims — however — are confusing, even if you have scientific experience. First, there is a claim that a year of effort would have been required to produce “100 liters” of anthrax. But directly across from this claim is a picture of Ivins’ Erlenmeyer flask anthrax source, with the caption: [It] would’ve taken a flask filled to brimming to come close to producing all the spores mailed in 2001.”

    Which appears not to be an unreasonable amount at all, given Ivins’ access to the flask and his considerable experience.”

    I think DD misunderstands that the single Erlenmeyer flask shown in the picture consisted at its origination date of 30g of Ames anthrax spores in a slurry of 1 liter of water. The resources needed to make this 30g of spores consisted of a combination of 12 x 10 liter fermentor runs at Dugway Proving Ground and 22 flask culture lots made at USAMRIID. Dr Bruce Ivins had calculated that to make 30g of spores at USAMRIID it would take approximately one year of work, which is why USAMRIID contracted the large fermentor runs at Dugway in order to fulfill their need for spores for animal vaccine challenge studies.

    Umm, no, I don’t misunderstand.

    There’s no published peer-reviewed science here.

    So any extemporaneous judgment is based on argument from authority — which is unfortunately suspect.

    All of these runs – 165 liters in total were concentrated down to the single liter in the flask. DD appears to believe that the single liter was produced from a single liter production run,

    These facts and figures have all been well documented and presented to the National Academy of Science anthrax science committee.

    Thus the resources required to make the 30g of spores (an amount that lasted for several years of Detrick’s animal challenge trials) was enormous. Detrick couldn’t make enough spores and that’s why they contracted Dugway who, even then, still had to perform no less than 12 fermentor production runs over a period of months.

    Ah, bull. This is never going to be published as anything but a poster session or a brief seminar..

    If one believed this argument, and I’m not saying one should at all since there’s no data here proving it’s valid, it interestingly destroys the entire idea that anthrax can be used as a weapon by anything other than a state-sponsored operation.

    Extraordinary claims require equally extraordinary proofs. Not just some hearsay furnished by journalism.

    The ProPublica claim implies it would have taken a man year of effort at Fort Detrick, the heart of the US bioterror defense to do.

    In the case of reality, ludicrous. If there is a case which convincingly argues Ivins wasn’t the culprit, this isn’t it.

  3. Dinsdale Piranha said,

    April 24, 2010 at 8:04 am

    DD wrote:

    “Ah, bull. This is never going to be published as anything but a poster session or a brief seminar..

    If one believed this argument, and I’m not saying one should at all since there’s no data here proving it’s valid, it interestingly destroys the entire idea that anthrax can be used as a weapon by anything other than a state-sponsored operation.

    Extraordinary claims require equally extraordinary proofs. Not just some hearsay furnished by journalism.”

    Extraordinary proof here is rather straightforward – see slide 31 below from the FBI’s own contractors. Peer review is not needed to prove simple factual procedures:

    http://caseclosedbylewweinstein.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/fraser-liggett-et-al-the-genomics-behind-the-amerithrax-investigation.pdf

  4. George Smith said,

    April 24, 2010 at 10:44 am

    A PowerPoint presentation on the topic of anthrax genomix identification doesn’t prove any point. And it’s not published science although it is a talk, like Heine’s.

  5. Dick Destiny » Anthrax Conspiracy Party said,

    November 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    […] this meeting was hosted exclusively by and for anthrax deniers, the kook fringe that regularly argues Bruce Ivins could not have made the anthrax that killed five. It received a hearing in the Frederick newspaper and was damned by a seemingly reluctant admission […]

  6. Dick Destiny » NRC report on Amerithrax science shows rigor and prudence said,

    February 15, 2011 at 11:10 am

    […] Henry S. Heine, a supervisor of Ivins’ who had attempted to clear the suspect. I discussed it here, noting that the story had only been publicized at ProPublica by one of the journalists deeply […]